Overweening Generalist

Monday, January 2, 2012

Structuralism: Passing Notes and Basic Explication

Since today is January 2nd, 2012, or as sombunall of us write it in Unistat, 1-2-12 - which looks like the representation for the code of binary, even though binary is usually represented by zeros and ones, not ones and twos, I figure...what the hell.

And what does binary and the date have to do with structuralism? And isn't structuralism passe? I mean, we've all heard of "post-structuralists," and Derrida, Lyotard, et.al.

The date has nothing to do with structuralism; 'tis a mere coincidence and analogical thought on my part. But structuralism - which motored along finely from Ferdinard de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (1913), to, I'll say Derrida's first "tour" of Unistat in the mid-1970s - had a good long fecund run on the world historical intellectual stage, but fell apart for some reasons I'll get to later.

The structuralist project, wonderfully intellectualized as it was, goes even further back to proto-structuralists Marx and Freud, if ya wanna count them.

                               One of the most interesting structuralists, Roland Barthes

What Was Structuralism?
It was a very interdisciplinary approach to knowledge that rejected the tradition of Western ontology and Plato's eternal essences of ideas that transcended all time and space. In this, structuralism largely did away with metaphysics. (Or structuralists thought they did. More on this later.) When Karl Marx said that religion, art, philosophy, etc were not products of Platonic timeless entities but were based in deep underlying economic structures, this is what we mean by doing away with traditional Western metaphysics and ontology.

Plato said that, via speech and dialectic we can get closer to the Ideal Forms, the things behind True Being, this had formed the basis for Western epistemology - the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge and how we know, what constitutes knowledge, etc. Structuralism did away with that too. Prior to Freud, Kant had replaced Plato's ideal forms, which resided somewhere in the Perfect space, with transcendent ideas that were located in the human mind. God equipped us to handle this heavy metaphysical stuff: our subjective minds. Freud comes along and says, nope: our subjective selves are the material worlds we inhabit. Instead and more importantly, deep hidden structures in our material minds form the "self."

So, proto-structuralists Marx and Freud argued, very persuasively, that our basis for meaning in truth is hidden, not "from above," as Plato had it, but from "below," (economic forces and unconscious motivations) in hidden, deep structures that are pervasive throughout the world. Everything is structure, and it's made up ultimately of tiny bits that, by themselves don't mean anything unless they are combined with other bits in a system of differences. Four basic examples:

-DNA is made up of chemical bases that form pairs. Adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine by themselves are nothing, but when they pair up, they give rise to the all binary units that make up DNA, and the template for every living thing.

-Your compact disc just reads ones and zeroes. The ones and zeroes, or we represent them that way, don't have any meaning by themselves. When they are coded in a very complex, elaborate way, voila! you have Balinese Monkey Music, Beatles, Beethoven, or The Bends.

-The words you're reading now don't mean anything except for that aspect that makes them different from something else. Take the word "rat." It's made up of phonemes (r, a, t). Notice it's not (b,a,t). A bat is also an animal, but it's also a wooden stick and this seems coincidental and arbitrary anyway, because (m,a,t), in English, is something we put before our doorstep. It's all arbitrary, because the sound of one letter changes the system of difference in the words, and the meaning is totally different. The individual letters have no meaning by themselves; they must be part of a system of differences, like the DNA example. And each language is (mostly) arbitary. The word for mountain in Hungarian, Chinese, Spanish, and Swahili is different. There is no "Adamic" system of language, in which God told Adam to name everything according to their true essence.

-The musical notes (c,e,g) form a C major chord. We have agreed to call it thus. It's a convention. When a "c" note vibrates at a certain number of cycles per second, moving molecules of air so that they impact structures in our ear, we think, "a note." (If we are one of roughly 100 people, we have perfect pitch and can say, "that's a c-note.") But that note doesn't have any meaning by itself. When we combine it in systems of scales or arpeggios, with rhythm, or maybe other instruments, we have a sonata, a mazurka, a symphony, a Brian May guitar solo on an old Queen record.

Structures are pervasive and dynamic. They are logical, complete, and could theoretically be plotted as Cartesian coordinates on a graph. Furthermore, everything could be studied structurally: linguistics, anthropology, biology, literature, economics, psychology, even mathematics...How did this all fall apart?

The Dwindling of Structuralism
I can't think of structuralism without thinking about the French academic mind. By no means were the founders of structuralism all French, but structuralism really took off in the French academies. I think basically the French intellectual milieu had been overly rationalistic. It's the way they are trained. I blame Descartes and the Port-Royal logicians, but that's really neither here not there. I see the structuralist project as an incredibly, bewilderingly impressive display of intellectualization of the world. I see it as a sort of work of Art. But what happened?

Quickly, structuralists fervently sought to displace human desire and its agency with deep, hidden structure. Remember: you don't desire that object or person or attainment for reasons of your "ego;" there  were unconscious energies that led to the desire, and your ego wants to claim it's in charge. But when the structuralists sought to place the entire world in a structural order, they seemed to evince a metaphysical desire for rational order in the world of blooming, buzzing confusion. That's ironic.

One can say, "Well, deeper structures took hold of the structuralists and caused them to construct structuralism." And you would have a funny, meta-ironic thought there, bright sophomore!

Also, as Jacques Derrida pointed out in his de-constructing of structuralism, when the structuralists sought to get rid of Western metaphysics and traditional ontology and epistemology, they ironically replaced both with yet another metaphysical system - which they claimed was scientific and rational, but it never quite worked out so that it was apparent to everyone exposed to it - and thereby undermined their core claims.

Structuralism had a fairly profound influence on the way universities categorized knowledge, and personally, as someone heavily influenced by Vico, I think, for example, "history" seems better described and thought of as a Humanities subject, but due (mostly) to structuralism, it's considered a "social science." Let us put humans back into the center of history, for we make it; to call it a "science" seems to me physics envy. I digress...

But what an intellectual gambit structuralism was! What group-ingeniousness! I think it was quite an impressive run. I think the body of structuralist thought advanced knowledge by creating its own versions of discovery procedures. And now, thinking like a structuralist can be seen as a heuristic mode in which to invent/uncover new ideas. As a totalizing meta-narrative? Not so much.

Some prominent structuralists are named in this article, and this one.
A good background book: The Age of Structuralism: From Levi-Strauss to Foucault, by Edith Kurzweil.

Here's a 5 min lecture by an unnamed Professor, on structuralism. Well, the lecture is really only about 2 minutes - but it's good - followed by a 3 minute montage of pics of Claude Levi-Strauss to the theme from Chariots of Fire. Still, the people who made this video seem to want you to revere structuralism, and especially Levi-Strauss:


SatoriGuy said...

Sounds very interesting. I definitely need to learn myself some structuralism. I keep seeing Claude Levi strauss' Structural Anthropology in bookstores..Maybe I'll pick it up next time.

Anyhow, your post reminded me of something I read in an Alan Watt's book recently. He made the point that Western culture has tendency to be over reliant on rationalism and language. As language is a way of signifying the real world, so too can our experience of the world can be once removed. But real experience is an Erotic fusion of self and world of sensory experience.

That is not to say that we should all go back to the blissful ignorance of a newborn but that we should use the gifts of rational thinking and structuralism etc. to have a more playful and sophisticated experience of Eros.

The flaw in the french rationalist approaches such as structuralism is akin to a musician striving to get to a certain note instead of letting the rhythm of the song unfold.
Horrible paraphrase but Watt's words definitely get the intellectual juices flowing, at least for me.

michael said...

I like Alan Watts a LOT too. RAW was friends with him and Watts was a sort of mentor figure in the 1960s to him. I can't remember RAW writing about, or even mentioning the French structuralists, because RAW's ideas about structure in nervous systems and "out there" were so heavily influenced by a declasse thinker, Korzybski. If you read Korzybski, the word "structure" shows up on about every other page. AK was avant, compared to the French academicians.

I always find your sort of zen-erotic approach about flow to be refreshing, Satori Guy. Thanks for reading this post and replying; sometimes I find I've been ruminating on some idea for a day or so and I think, "I haven't done a blog post in a couple of days; why don't I spew it out there and I might learn something as I write..." and afterwards thinking, "Who the hell would be interested in some guy who seems to EXPLAINING something to himself...how boring!"

Get this: I love "weird" people, and I assume anyone who reads this blog must be pretty weird, so...I do appreciate esotericism and meeting me halfway.

Levi-Strauss's anthropology is, to me, both "trippy" and very rationalistic. He took Roman Jakobsen's influence (who was in turn influenced by de Saussure) idea of phonemes as basic units of linguistic structure, and came up with mythemes: basic units of myth that were supposedly applicable all over the world: water, fire, three brothers, the quest, etc. Then he goes and susses out the "hidden grammar" or syntax of ordinary life! Why is dessert last for us and salad first? Levi-Strauss has "the" answer. Wow.

The way the French Academy is set up tends to, in my current reading, lend itself to these kinds of dense intellectualisms. An ironic thing: most of the structuralists who lived on into the 1970s and 80s became post-structural, and deconstructive, which is, to me, even MORE abstruse stuff!

SatoriGuy said...

Haha well don't let my namesake fool you. I'm no Zen expert. But I do think Eastern Mysticism is due for a revival in academic and intellectual circles.

And as fellow RAW fan I readily admit to a being a little weird. Before reading RAW a couple years ago I was a bored university student/jock who read seldomly. However, something clicked after reading RAW and I feel compelled to gorge myself on as much esoteric and mind expanding material as possible to make up for lost time.

As you're someone who knew Ol' Bob I appreciate your viewpoint and erudite online musings. This blog is a nice little supplement to the diverse tomes I'm trying to plow through.

Keep on keepin' on!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Quick post:

i don't know much about structuralism, although i hace read philosophical precurors like husserl. I have also read sartre. this is where my question comes in. sartre seems to have to a similar conclusion about human actions and thoughts, the "melody" analogy (that each action just "is", we make it something by combining it, in a certain way). how do structuralism and startre's existentialism differ, in this respect?

michael said...

@HomingBohm: Sartre couldn't help but be influenced by the structuralists, but I see his existentialism as much more a theory and practice of knowledge/responsibility/personal choice/"owning" one's own actions, in the Grand Scheme of structures of visible power relations and invisible ones.

I see - in my current level of ignorance - Sartrean existentialism (or rather, where he was in the last 15 years of his life) as tangential to the central concerns of the structuralists. When Marx wrote on a thesis by Feuerbach that it's one thing to describe how the world "is," but the point is to CHANGE IT, I think Sartre is closer to that than, say, what Levi-Strauss or Barthes were doing.

Really, I see Sartre as closer to the concerns of another interdisciplinary intellectual group: The Frankfurt School thinkers, particularly someone like Marcuse.

I hope that helped.

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